A survey of corporate public relations practitioners classified as managers or technicians revealed that although online databases are having positive effects on the practice of public relations, most practitioners are not yet taking advantage of these empowering opportunities. Practitioners need to be aware that online databases provide a new avenue for participation in management decision making. As greater numbers of practitioners begin cruising the information superhighway and put the new technologies available to full use, public relations can experience even greater opportunities to pull up a chair at the management table.
Corporate public relations practitioners have long struggled to achieve professional status and power within organizations and to justify the very existence of the public relations function to the management of organizations.' In search of this status and power, practitioners have often turned to environmental monitoring and issues management to provide management with useful information about their organizations' external environments. As effective issues managers, public relations practitioners have won influence among members of management and consequently more power in the decision-making process.2
Some recent research suggests new technologies are gaining acceptance among practitioners; other research suggests not. The purpose of this study is to assess practitioners' use of online databases for issues management and whether such use enhances practitioner participation in management decision making. In addition, effects, if any, of online databases on the status of public relations within organizations will be investigated.
Trends in New Technologies and Public Relations. In 1996 Gustafson and Thomsen3 predicted that PR practitioners will spend more time online with clients, the media, and customers in the near future. At the same time, practitioners will also rely more on database and information services. Ryan4 confirmed this prediction in a 1999 survey of PRSA members that reported 99 percent use of the World Wide Web, with 57 percent using it for surveillance of companies, 49 percent exploring databases at other sites, and 39 percent using the Internet to monitor government activities. This monitoring function is described by Carole Howard5 as a means to place a great deal of power and reach in the hands of practitioners. These advantages afforded by new technologies account for the conclusions of the Bohle Company6 derived from a survey of 950 members of the PRSA Counselors Academy which found that agencies are using technology more than ever and relying on the Internet as an integral part of day-to-day operations.
Online databases consist of collections of numbers, text, pictures, video, sound, and other information in electronic form, retrievable via computer through phone lines.7 Practitioners can use commercial, feebased online databases such as "Lexis/Nexis" and "Dow Jones News Retrieval" or free, publicly available World Wide Web-based databases such as "Infoseek" or "My Yahoo! News Services" to access information on almost any current or historical subject. Online databases organize large amounts of detailed information in searchable and readily accessible form. They are secondary research tools offering extensive information beyond what would be found on a college web site, for example. Although it would be easy to find sites that offer enough information to inhabit the gray boundary between an online database and a useful set of web pages, for purposes of this study the online database comprised fee-based information services and free search engines, and focuses specially on fee-based online database use.
According to recent trade publications and nonrefereed journals, new technologies significantly enhance the speed in which users can gather information and conduct evaluation, thereby enhancing issues tracking by monitoring the public opinion environment on the Internet. …